Celebrating New Zealand science books

The Royal Society of New Zealand recently announced five finalists for their inaugural Science Book Prize

Compiling an anthology of writing by and about New Zealand scientists was one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever worked on – a license to step away from my computer and read: autobiographies, scientific journals, conference papers, popular books, diary entries and even poems.

While I read as widely as I could, I did start with a few firm ideas about what I wanted to include in the anthology. There was Allan Wilson’s story about using DNA to trace all humans back to a common ancestor – ‘mitochondrial Eve’. The science that led Ernest Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins and Alan MacDiarmid to win Nobel Prizes had to feature. So did the pioneering work of some of our colourful early geologists and naturalists, people like Ernst Dieffenbach, Walter Buller and Leonard Cockayne.

But I soon realised that the fact that interesting birds and rocks had been discovered, radioactivity had been investigated, and conductive polymers had been developed was no guarantee that anyone had written an engrossing story about them, let alone one that people would want to pay to read. But even through it was clear that being a good scientist was no guarantee of being a good writer, I did find that the best stories, the ones that really conveyed the excitement of science and the thrill of discovery, were written not by journalists or biographers, but by the scientists themselves.

When astronomer Beatrice Tinsley, who studied at Canterbury University but later became a Yale professor, told her sister, "If ever you thought scientists were unemotional impersonal eggheads, change your mind!" she could have spoken for all the scientists I chose for the book. Even though I had spent a lot of my working life with scientists, I was not prepared for the passion with which many of them wrote about their work.

Joan Wiffen recalled her "intense excitement" at finding her first fossil bone a few months after starting her Hawke’s Bay dinosaur hunt. Alan MacDiarmid remembered the ‘burning curiosity’ with which he devoured his first chemistry textbook as a young boy. And nineteenth-century Austrian naturalist Andreas Reischek, describing the moment he saw the stuffed specimen of a stitchbird in the Canterbury Museum, resolved "to seek him out, or die in the attempt".

This passion for science often emerged from a childhood hobby or fascination with the natural world. Entomologist George Hudson was born in London, and started a natural history diary when he was just 11 years old, drawing coloured illustrations of insects and plants and writing detailed descriptions of the different species he encountered. He arrived in this country aged 14, and soon got to know the local species, completing his first book on New Zealand insects when he was just 19. He had a job at the post office all his working life, using his spare time to get about the countryside in his gentleman naturalist’s garb of three-piece suit and watch chain, beneath which I’m told he wore long pink woollen underwear. Charles Fleming also began his scientific career with a childhood passion for the natural world – he was particularly interested in birds and shells – which he turned into a career in which he published in the fields of geology, ornithology, entomology and paleontology.

In putting the anthology together I really depended on finding scientists who could convey complex scientific principles or events to an interested non-scientist. This kind of writing often relies on metaphor and the best pieces I found made liberal use of it. When Ernest Rutherford described the deflection of alpha particles fired at a thin gold foil as "almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you", he said something about the structure of the atom and conveyed his sense of surprise and awe in a way anyone of his era could understand. And when you read Maurice Wilkins’ description of the DNA he is working with as looking "like snot" which, when stretched out, forms thin fibres "like those in a spider’s web", the resulting mental image conveys so much more than a direct scientific description.

All these writings are the ancestors of the five finalists in a new book prize recognising the best science writing in New Zealand.

The short-listed books are Falling for Science, by Bernard Beckett (Longacre Press); Hot Topic: Climate Change and the Future of New Zealand by Gareth Renowden (AUT Media); In Search of Ancient New Zealand by Hamish Campbell and Gerard Hutching (Penguin); the Montana-award winning Wetlands of New Zealand: A Bitter-sweet Story by Janet Hunt (Random House), and, I was delighted to discover, my own anthology of New Zealand science, The Awa Book of New Zealand Science (Awa Press).

The winner of the inaugural Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize will be announced at the Auckland Writers Festival on 15 May. Good luck to all the finalists, and kudos to the Royal Society of New Zealand for initiating the prize – it’s great to have them supporting and encouraging local publications about science.